Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ghosts and the Past: James Lee Burke's Creole Belle

The past is never dead. It's not even past. – William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951).

In the epilogue of Crusader’s Cross, the tough but sympathetic Cajun detective, Dave Robicheaux, muses that “age brings few gifts, but one of them is the acceptance that the past is the past.” This comforting illusion belies James Lee Burke’s oeuvre in the hard-boiled Robicheaux novels set in the Louisiana bayous near New Orleans. This series is characterized by its vivid evocation of the region and its culture, deeply flawed individuals and institutions on both sides of the law, its gritty patois and philosophical reflections. From the first instalment  The Neon Rain, to his eighteenth and most recent, Creole Belle (Simon & Schuster, 2012), the past, both his personal and the country’s troubled history, not only informs his world view but fuels his daily reliance on instinct and his dogged pursuit of the purveyors of evil. The post-traumatic stress that Robicheaux experienced after Vietnam shadows every novel. The past revisits him through memory, dreams and spectral appearances that conflate his perception, real and imagined, and often serve his search for clarity. In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, while investigating a murder spree of butchered young women, which in Robicheaux’s mind is connected to a 1957 murder of a black man, he converses in dream-like scenes with the ghost of General John Bell Hood, a battlefield officer during the Civil War who admits that he served “a repellent cause.” The officer serves as a spiritual mentor to advise Robicheaux that violence outside the law may only be justified if loved ones are endangered and to remind him that racially-motivated crimes are rooted in the catastrophic failure of Reconstruction.

In most of his work, there is an ongoing interaction between the ghosts of the past and the present. In Creole Robicheaux says, “I believe their story has never been adequately told and they will never rest until it is.” These stories can feed his guilt but they also offer solace and occasional wisdom as he contends with the vast array of human predators who destroy peoples’ lives and despoil the environment: the lowlifes, corrupt police and politicians, and the arrogant and powerful criminal and corporate elites. Even in a novel that is focused on the present, The Tin Roof Blowdown, which takes place during the apocalyptic days after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, Burke explores the wider political and social implications of the ensuing chaos in the institutional collapse. Burke’s anger about the lacklustre response to the storm is evident – he believes an American city has been turned into a Baghdad and he implicitly contrasts Lyndon Johnson’s hands-on, visceral presence during his 1965 visit to the city lashed by Hurricane Betsy – but he also attends to the historical legacy of a polarized racial community with its vicious racism and economic barriers that is redolent of the HBO production Treme.

Bertrand Tavernier's film adaptation  
At the outset of Creole, reality and a spectral presence collide, and the past and the present intermingle. Robicheaux is in a New Orleans clinic recovering from what the reader thought were fatal gunshot wounds that he had received at the end of The Glass Rainbow only to be rescued from near death by his long-time friend and former police partner Clete Purcel. Late one evening when the building was locked, a bluesy Creole singer named Tee Jolie Melton, who has not been seen for weeks, appears before him to tell a story about defective parts on an oil rig and that she may know things that are dangerous. She leaves him with an iPod loaded with his favourite music, but strangely no one else can find them on the iPod’s playlist. Given that he is attached to a morphine drip that could cause him to hallucinate, something he was prone to do as he battled for decades the demons of alcoholism after Vietnam, this scene may feel like a dream. The sense of surrealism is heightened when her younger sister shows up dead a few weeks later. But Robicheaux never doubts the “existence of unseen realities that can hover like a hologram right beyond the edges of our reason.” Regardless, Tee Jolie’s story enables him to make connections about the oil blow-out that has fouled the ecosystem of what once was a near-pristine environment and rekindles his memory of how his father died in an oil-drilling explosion. That opening sets the stage for a long, sprawling novel in which horrors from the distant and not-so distant past reappear and reinforce the obscenities committed in the present.

The violence that Robicheaux and Purcel encountered at the conclusion of Glass Rainbow has evoked their Vietnam post-traumatic stress. The capricious Purcel is given to more outbursts of self-destructive and violent behaviour. In his pain, he confesses to Robicheaux: “We’re dragging the chain forty years down the road.” In Creole the source for the psychological toll that has crippled him with grief and guilt is revealed. His guilt is further complicated when a long-lost daughter, Gretchen, with a history of sexual abuse appears to be a professional killer. He is forced to consider whether there “is a bad seed in [their] loins,” a question that might have been raised by some of the novel’s more unsavoury characters.

Despite the strain in their relationship when Robicheaux has misgivings over Gretchen, particularly when she strikes up a friendship with his own adopted daughter, Alafair, they combine forces to challenge the people who threaten them and their families. When they confront the benefactors of art forgery and human trafficking, who ally themselves with those who ravage the environment and use a medieval torture chamber to eliminate their enemies, Robicheaux raises the same question as his friend and wonders “were there two groups of simian creatures vying for control of the gene pool, one fairly decent, the other defined by their canine teeth?” Emblematic of the latter are both a racist, who Robicheaux knew had been an ignorant, corrupt cop, and the sinister patriarch of a powerful, wealthy family with a questionable claim to be a survivor from a Nazi concentration camp. Both the forces that once disfigured the past and the current miscreants of venality and brutality pose a formidable threat to Robicheaux and those close to him.

If some of the monsters are vanquished as the crime genre requires, the corporate villains, sustained by official lies, continue to exercise power. As an aging Robicheaux, his family and friends recuperate from their ordeal, we are left wondering whether he can muster the energy and the will to challenge again those who endanger innocent lives and threaten the environment. I would not bet against it.

(photo by Keith Penner)
 Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. 11 The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, will be available for readers by early February 2013.

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